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South Park: ‘Religious Defamation’, Freedom of Expression & Human Rights

*Spoiler AlertThis post contains some  spoilers to the South Park episodes “200” and “201”. In Ireland and the United Kingdom South Park airs on Comedy Central. Comedy Central has not aired the episode “201” in Ireland or the United Kingdom. The episode “201” has been uploaded (illegally) onto a variety of sites.

HRiI has discussed extensively  the issue of criminal blasphemy in Ireland, over the last few months, see, here, here, here, here, here and here. Contributors to these posts noted Ireland’s hypocrisy on the issue, and the threats which this legislation posed to freedom of expression. The popular Comedy Central show South Park celebrated its 200th episode recently. In typical South Park fashion it dealt with a number of pressing (and not so pressing) issues. A central focus of both the 200th and 201st episodes (as it was in the episodes Cartoon Wars: Part I and Cartoon Wars: Part II) revolved around the religious prophet Muhammad and the controversy regarding depicting him in human form. A number of groups who did not want to be ridiculed (celebrities and persons with red hair),  sought Muhammad’s ‘goo’ which they believed would  make them impervious from public ridicule or criticism.  In the South Park Universe, Muhammad is part of the Super Best Friends, a group of religious figures (plus one) who help those in need. The group consists of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna, Joseph Smith, Lao Tzu, Moses and a character called Sea Man. The Super Best Friends were introduced to the South Park Universe in 2001, and as the picture to the side shows, there was no controversy for depicting an image of Muhammad (to the right of Jesus). However, with the publication of the Danish Cartoons and the resulting violence (see here, here, here, and to view the controversial cartoons see here), Comedy Central refused to air the image of Muhammad. It had initially been thought that the 200th episode depicted Muhammad dressed up in an oversize bear outfit, harking park to the Sudanese controversy. However, in the 201st episode it was revealed that Muhammad was not in the bear costume. For the whole of the 201st episode, images of Muhammad were censored and Muhammad’s name was bleeped from the dialogue. In addition, large portions of the show were bleeped when a number of the characters tried to suggest what could be learned from the problems the characters faced in the episode. The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had their addresses published on extremist website forums and suggested they would face a similar fate to Theo van Gogh (see here, here, here, here and here).

Is such gratuitous mocking of religion permitted under human rights law? Do human rights protections extend to those who wish not to have deeply held beliefs ridiculed in a crass (or any other) manner?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the core international human rights treaties, protect both the right to freedom of expression, as well as the freedom of religion.  Article 19 of the ICCPR, whilst protecting the right to freedom of expression, allows limitations on the basis of

(a) respect for the rights or reputation of other (b) the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals

The right to freedom of religion and conscience is limited through restrictions on types of religious manifestation:

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

In addition, Article 20(2) ICCPR states:

Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

In Dr. David Keane’s article, Cartoon Violence and Freedom of Expression (subscription required), Keane outlines the history of cartoon satire, as well as the use of cartoons to promote racial, national and religious stereotypes (noting in particular anti-Irish cartoons , anti-Semitic cartoons and cartoons stereotyping African-Americans). At the same time,Keane notes that cartoonists have been severely punished for perceived slights against religious and political leaders.  Human Rights Watch recognised the offence caused by the cartoons, however adopted an approach whereby freedom of expression, no matter how distasteful, should be permitted. The European Court of Human Rights in Otto-Preminger Institut held that persons have a right not be insulted for their religious beliefs, where the method of so doing is “gratuitously offensive” or does not contribute to ” public debate capable of furthering progress in human affairs”.

The United Nations in two different reports (here and here), appeared to adopt different conclusions. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as Keane notes, did not deal with the matter head on, but reminded Denmark of its obligations to ensure the prosecution of racial hate crimes.   After providing an overview of the UN’s Cartooning for Peace, Keane concludes:

…cartoonists must be able to work free of threat, irrespective of their viewpoints, as long as they stay within the parameters of the law. It is the law that must be changed if we are to decide that religious defamation cannot be tolerated. Ultimately, and unless that happens, restraint and consideration are required on the part of cartoonists. However, these are not traits that go easily with the profession.

The only outright restriction on free speech which exists under international human rights law is contained in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Article 4 ICERD states:

States Parties condemn all propaganda and all organizations which are based on ideas or theories of superiority of one race or group of persons of one colour or ethnic origin, or which attempt to justify or promote racial hatred and discrimination in any form, and undertake to adopt immediate and positive measures designed to eradicate all incitement to, or acts of, such discrimination and, to this end, with due regard to the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rights expressly set forth in article 5 of this Convention, inter alia:

(a) Shall declare an offence punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin, and also the provision of any assistance to racist activities, including the financing thereof;

(b) Shall declare illegal and prohibit organizations, and also organized and all other propaganda activities, which promote and incite racial discrimination, and shall recognize participation in such organizations or activities as an offence punishable by law;

(c) Shall not permit public authorities or public institutions, national or local, to promote or incite racial discrimination.

A large number of states parties have reservations to Article 4, with a number of countries, including Ireland, stating that:

the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association may not be jeopardised…

Keane is correct to point out the juncture which exists between racial and religious discrimination. However, the actions or opinions of some, while racist and fuelled by hatred of certain religious communities, should not render all criticism or satire of a religion as off-limits. It is unclear why cartoonists should show ‘restraint and consideration’ when engaging in satire against religion. Why should this standard not be applied to criticism of all non-religious beliefs which do not expound hate or racism? The prohibition on depicting Muhammad may form part of the core beliefs of  some within Islam  and his depiction may be deeply resented by adherents, yet it is unclear why others should be obliged to conform with this religious obligation. While international human rights law protects the right to manifest ones religious beliefs, the relevant restrictions on limiting freedom of expression do not specifically prevent ‘religious defamation’.  The Human Rights Committee, which monitors state party compliance with the ICCPR, has specifically stated in General Comment No. 22 that:

Article 18.2 bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs…

While freedom of expression should be limited where it incites hatred against a particular racial or religious group, this should not be confused with criticism or ridiculing of core religious beliefs or values. The legitimate limitations on freedom of expression should not be utilised to prevent actual or perceived slighting of religious beliefs. While some may disagree with my interpretation of human rights law in this controversial area, there is a very clear unconditional prohibition on the right to use violence, or the threat of violence, to assert beliefs and practices onto persons who do not share those religious views. The adoption by the UN Human Rights Council of a non-binding resolution on religious defamation is most unwelcome, and attempts to place dogmatic assertions surrounding ‘sacred persons’ above the right to criticise religion. Attempts to criminalise ‘religious defamation’ at the international level have recently failed.

South Park is a show which  purposefully courts controversy and seeks to gratuitously mock all religions. Throughout its 201 episodes it has (as illustrative examples) made continuous reference to Jewish stereotypes (see here, Swetswise subscription required); portrayed Jesus Christ in less than flattering situations;  had a “dum…dum…dum…” tune to the background of an episode which discussed the origins of the Mormon religion; makes regular derogatory remarks towards adherents of Scientology (see here) and has shown Buddha snorting cocaine. At times South Park has made some fairly harsh comments towards Muslims, (as an indicative example see here). Conversely, atheists have also been ridiculed.  Most notably, when a number of South Park parents converted to atheism, in the episode Red Hot Catholic Love. In another episode, Richard Dawkins (pictured right) came in for ridicule due to his perceived aggressive promotion of non-belief and the episode suggested that religions were unfairly blamed for violence and war (see here and here) which would exist even if religions did not. The purpose of South Park episodes “200” and “201”  were not to engage in religious hatred or hate speech towards the Islamic community. The purpose was to show the mental acrobatics which have to be gone through to justify the limitation of freedom of expression from mocking of one groups beliefs, yet allowed to freely ridicule the religious beliefs of others. In the words of the South Park creators, they are “equal opportunity offenders”. To those who are offended by shows like South Park, which does not provoke hatred on the ground of religious belief, the solution is simple, change the channel.

UPDATE: Dr.  David Keane has responded to this post, and the wider issues raised within it-Keane on South Park, Islam and Hate Speech: A European Perspective.

*All picture credits for South Park are copyright of Comedy Central.

* UN Human Rights Committee logo is copyright of the United Nations.

  1. John D
    April 24, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    I’m not too up on my South Park, but I presume the reference to the “Moron” religion in the last paragraph was just a fortuitous mistake.

  2. April 24, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks for noticing John, now corrected.

  3. John D
    April 24, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    I didn’t really want you to correct it.

  4. Kako
    April 27, 2010 at 12:44 am

    Yes, sure, but threatening to kill them is part of their right to express their ideas, right? You can say what you think, unless you offend religions. Why respect potential killers who do not have a sense of humour? It is just a cartoon, for God’s sake!

  1. April 24, 2010 at 9:10 pm
  2. April 26, 2010 at 3:08 pm

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